Here in Victoria, BC; spring is starting to really push the grass up. It seems all my neighbors are getting their mowers out of the sheds and having a devil of a time getting a trim lawn without serious frustration and I want this article to help:
First of all let’s get the tools ready. Starting a mower for the first time in months is always difficult. Do a web search for a manual and print it, it will make everything easier! On many non-starting mowers I see plugged air filters. Try taking it off and starting it again. There could also be condensation in the engine from winter, so remove the spark plug and use a wire brush to clean the electrode and replace if it looks awful. If it still doesn’t start it could be the old gas just won’t ignite properly or there is sediment in the fuel line that needs clearing. Consult the manual or ask a buddy who knows about small engines.
Once you get it started, turn it off after warming up and check the blade for sharpness. A dull blade will more bludgeon grass than trim it. Take off the spark plug wire and tip the mower on its side so the air filter faces up. Then just make sure there’s some kind of edge on the first inch or two of the blade, which is where most of the cutting happens. A file will do the trick, although a grinder is much faster.
String trimmers, known by the “Weed-Eater” brand-name, are usually a different engine type and are easier to start after being ignored. If you have trouble, just follow the above advice. Make sure you have extra trimmer line handy!
After walking around the lawn to pick up or move any kids’ toys, hoses, dog poop… do a horizontal trim of the grass. Most trimmers spin counter-clockwise, so by trimming the lawn in that same direction, the clippings are thrown into the lawn where the mower will suck them up!
The vertical trim is much more difficult, requiring shoulder strength and firm control of the trimmer, but gives a professional touch that makes the lawn and whatever borders it look great! Again, you move counter-clockwise around the lawn so the grass blades are thrown down and not up. Beware of shooting rocks into windows! Change your direction of approach to aim away from anything that could be damaged. Also, this is different from EDGING which uses a metal blade, not a string. The trimmer is just for trimming the grass, not cutting soil.
Ah, now to mow! Setting the correct mower height is an over-looked adjustment that can make or beak a lawn (…and mower! I’ve seen mowers die because they were set too low!). Many good books advise to use one height all year ‘round. Ideally, yes, but typically I’ll use a range of settings depending on the time of year and how long since the last mow. The simplest advice I can give is set it low enough so you’re clearly accomplishing something but high enough so the engine doesn’t bog down. If you cut so low that the grass looks yellow or thin, that’s too low! If this isn’t as low as you would like, mow it high then give the lawn 3-5 days recovery and mow it again. A short lawn always looks pleasing to the eye but longer ones are more resistant to weeds, drought, foot traffic… I’ll typically mow from 1 ½ to 2 ½ inches in height, depending…
Using the mulch setting on mowers is becoming much more common. The benefits are that less fertilizer is required, the organic matter in the soil increases and no clippings have to be disposed of. The downside is that it looks awful if the lawn isn’t dry, it works more poorly as the mower height increases, and if you have weeds going to seed in your lawn you’ll just spread them!
Ok, ready to mow? Start by making one or more laps around the perimeter, typically going clockwise to help suck debris away from the edge where it’s most noticeable. Then pick any convenient line on the lawn and use that as the basis for mowing. Instead of walking directly behind the mower, I walk just off-centre so I can have my head above the wheels and use them to “sight” a straight line. Straight lines make a pro lawn! If possible, drive the mower off the lawn to turn it around because turning tends to make ruts in the lawn. To further prevent ruts and get an even cut, avoid running the wheels along the same track on adjacent passes by overlapping the wheels tracks (I know that’s confusing, see the picture below: You can see where the wheels flattened the grass from the previous pass and now I’m overlapping that.) When you’re done, walk the mower off the lawn such that you don’t make ridiculous mower tracks through your perfect-looking lawn. Go around the edge or follow an existing line.
If you’re a quiet type you may want to use a broom for a final tidy of all the clippings that got on sidewalks or driveways, but a blower is sure faster. All those grass clipping make great compost, or spread them thinly on beds for a fantastic mulch.
There you have it, all the best tips for making a lawn that makes your neighbors jealous! Have a happy growing season!